Letters to My Daughter: When I Met Le Ly

Return to Viet Nam.2. In a series of letters about my return journey to Viet Nam.

I spent a long time imagining who I might go to Viet Nam with. Who would come with me?  This was a journey I didn’t want to do alone. My friend Rodger, who had been a combat engineer in the war, went back with his daughter, Marieke. Rodger is a poet and journalist and describes his return in his writings. My friend Matt had been to Tibet on a spiritual journey. I didn’t know what a spiritual journey looked like, but the focus made me curious since that was a little of the journey of my life from the young Texas girl in anti-war America who was simply curious about Viet Nam.

 I called the man who ran a group called “Soldiers on a Mission.” He was planning a trip for fall 2022, but the Vietnamese government wouldn’t let them come anymore on the visa they had come on. I found later they were on a Christian mission, in addition to being vets on a medical mission.  Evangelical Christianity is considered “suspect” by the Communist government. Anyway, it was their last mission.

It would have been one thing to travel with a group of vets, with this group or another.   I had been the champion of soldiers. I would have learned a lot with a group of people who had been shaped by the war in all our odd ways.  But I didn’t want to see Viet Nam that way.  We’ve had a sort of a refrain, Lizzie. I say, Do you remember…. And you say, Mom, I wasn’t born yet. And we laugh. It’s just so funny, I imagine you as a part of all my life. You were always curious why I went to the war. I wanted to understand that better myself by meeting people in Viet Nam today

Saigon: Terry playing cards with children in 1970

Years pass. It’s 1987.  You’re ten years old. That’s the year I started as the children’s librarian in Leominster, MA.  Along with the French Canadian kids and the Italians and the Irish, here were all these Vietnamese kids whose families had resettled in the area.   In Leominster, I read Vietnamese folktales along with tales of other cultures for story times.  I met Vietnamese moms and dads. I began to experience the culture with the families, now some 9,000 miles from home. 

A few years later, a book was published that filled in a vast gap of my knowledge of the war. It was from the Vietnamese point of view. I had devoured the accounts by U.S. soldiers and journalists. I’d never read the story of a Vietnamese woman and now here was a book available in English. It was called When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip, a young Vietnamese-American woman. The New York Times headlined a review of her book with the words, A CHILD’S TOUR OF DUTY:

New York Times Review of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip (1989)

I read the book then and am re-reading it now. She addresses Americans, maybe especially returned veterans as her husband had been. In the prologue she writes:

It was not your fault. It could not have been otherwise. Long before you arrived, my country had yielded to the terrible logic of war.

Then we hear the reality of her life as a child in a village at war. Ky La in central Vietnam is a village shattered. Le Ly describes a war between the communist north steeped in Buddhist tradition and the south with a U.S.-backed president and long shadows of French colonialism and Catholicism.

For you it was a simple thing: democracy against communism. For us, that was not our fight at all. For most of us it was a fight for independence…

Many Vietnamese-American writers have followed Le Ly, bringing the changing interpretations of cultural identity and dialogues between east and west. To me, Le Ly offered a bridge to cross.

Oct. 2022. I continued my search for someone to travel with. I found academic trips with an agency in Boulder, and that would have gotten me deep into the history and culture of Vietnam. The tour was described as luxurious and that concerned me as I didn’t desire luxury. I imagine that there would be westerners in evening attire having cocktails like the English on the patios I’d pictured in A Passage to India. No. I couldn’t do that.

Then I found the impossible.  The same agency introduced another tour. Le Ly Hayslip was organizing a pilgrimage to her home village near Danang in February, 2023. Le Ly had invited others to join her to highlight the humanitarian work she with others have done for decades. “34 years ago, Le Ly’s newly-inaugurated East Meets West Foundation commenced its mission of healing the wounds of war in Vietnam.” The journey takes us from Saigon, to Le Ly’s home village once called Ky La, and to schools and clinics her foundation supports. Then we go to Hanoi, a city where I have never been.

During the months we prepared for the journey, Le Ly and I became friends. She has read my children’s books and my writing collaborations across culture. We began to talk about preparing folktales in English, tales her mother told to her when Le Ly was little. Heaven and Earth is full of passed-down tales and lullabies from mother to daughter and father to daughter. They reflect the world at war she grew up in and a world she wants to document for all generations. She writes:

                        Children and soldiers have always known [war] to be terrible.

Next: It takes a village to leave a village

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